Ten years ago this week, MMATorch senior columnist Shawn Ennis presented the following column listing the top contenders lining up to face Chuck Liddell. The original headline was: “ENNIS: A walk through Liddell’s challengers – those ready, those on their way, and the longshots.” Check it out and see, in retrospect, how these prospects actually ended up doing…
Chuck Liddell successfully defended his UFC Light Heavyweight Title for the third time a few weeks ago against Renato Sobral. Where does that leave the division? Who else can challenge “The Iceman”? Who could be brought in from other promotions to give new life to a division not as deep as some of the others in the UFC? Let’s have a look at the landscape here.
Chuck Liddell: Liddell is, in a word, dominant. Since his loss to Quinton Jackson in PRIDE almost three years ago, he’s rattled off six straight wins against top competition. In that time, “The Iceman” has looked unbeatable. No one has found a chink in the armor. No one has come close to beating Liddell. Even the legendary Randy Couture, who beat Liddell decisively in 2003, has since fallen victim to the pinpoint precision of the champ’s strikes not once, but twice. Liddell has shown that a fighter cannot make even the smallest of mistakes when fighting him if that fighter wishes to remain conscious.
Tito Ortiz: You’ll notice that Ortiz is by himself in this category, and as Wade pointed out in an earlier column, this could prove to be a problem for the UFC if things don’t work out right. But I digress. Ortiz has been on a smaller roll lately after dropping two straight to Couture and Liddell respectively. He has since won a unanimous decision over Patrick Cote, two split decisions over Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin (either of which could have gone the other way), and beaten Ken Shamrock in another controversial fight due to what was deemed by many as an early stoppage by referee Herb Dean (Dean got it right, by the way, if you ask me). But on paper, all that matters is the four straight “W”‘s over quality competition. And yes, Vitor Belfort is quality competition when he’s at the top of his game. If you don’t believe me, ask Yoshiki Takahashi (who suffered a 36 second KO to the Brazilian in July). So Ortiz will be knocking on the champion’s door after he thoroughly dismantles Ken Shamrock (again) on October 10. Big John McCarthy will be sure to allow Shamrock to receive as much punishment as Shamrock deems necessary this time, and the result will not be pretty. (Hey, I’m as big a fan of Shamrock as anyone else who saw the early UFC events, but I’m also realistic.) Even though Ortiz previously lost to Liddell in one-sided fashion, that fight was a little over four years ago. Tito looks to be in great shape, and he’s always a very legitimate threat when healthy. He was, after all, the last man to beat Wanderlei Silva at 205 pounds before Ricardo Arona came along last year.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Forrest Griffin: The loss to Ortiz notwithstanding, Griffin still has momentum in the light heavyweight division. A lot of people feel that he won the fight at UFC 59, and his popularity has never waned since he won the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” His rematch with Stephan Bonnar at UFC 62 showed how far Griffin has come since winning the competition, and another couple of quality wins could put him right on Liddell’s doorstep.
Rashad Evans: His methodical, less-than-punishing style doesn’t endear him to the fans by any means, but Rashad Evans is just a couple of decisions away from contendership. His win over Bonnar was big, and if he’s able to beat Jason Lambert next weekend, it would be another step in the right direction for the undefeated Evans.
Michael Bisping: Another winner of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Bisping is also undefeated. We haven’t seen anything from him since the TUF finale (he’s tentatively scheduled to fight in November at UFC 65 against a yet-to-be-named opponent), but make no mistake: Bisping will make a huge impact sooner rather than later in the light heavyweight division. He’s got all the tools to be a big star in the UFC, not to mention he’s a likeable guy who had some positive exposure from the reality show. “The Count” is also undefeated, and unlike Evans, tends to end his fights before the final bell. In eleven fights, he has finished every opponent that he has faced. Bisping is young, and he’s going to be around for a long time.
UP AND COMERS
Alessio Sakara: He hasn’t been overly impressive in his last two UFC bouts against Elvis Sinosic (a dominant performance, but finishing Sinosic would have been much more impressive) and Dean Lister (I didn’t understand the decision to pit Lister against Sakara when Lister wasn’t staying at 205 anyway), but he’s got potential. A former professional boxer, the Italian has dynamite in his fists, and if he makes some progress in his ground game, he could be a real force in a few years. In the meantime, he’ll probably play the role of gatekeeper if he stays in the UFC, or he could go back to the smaller promotions and work his way back up by showing what got him to the big show in the first place.
Keith Jardine: Jardine suffered a setback with his decision loss to Stephan Bonnar (a fight that many, including myself, felt he won), but bounced back with a victory over Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ace Wilson Gouveia at the TUF 3 Finale. Jardine has a no-nonsense, straight-forward style and look that fans can get behind (his leg kicks are absolutely devastating when he sticks with them), and if he can string together a few quality wins (perhaps a few by stoppage), he could possibly make a run in the future.
Jason Lambert: Lambert is on the verge of making a real run at contendership if he can take out Rashad Evans at UFC 63. He has won eight straight, including victories over Travis Wiuff, Marvin Eastman, and Matt Horwich. We last saw Lambert stopping the larger Branden Lee Hinkle in June at Ultimate Fight Night 5. “The Punisher” is one of those guys who could come out of seemingly nowhere and have a legitimate shot at the title down the road.
Others: Two newer faces in the UFC, David Heath and Eric “Red” Shaefer, both looked very impressive at UFC 62. Shaefer seems to be the outgoing type who could get some attention relatively quickly.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Renato Sobral: After losing two lopsided fights to the champ, “Babalu” starts at square one again. Where does he go from here? Will we see him in the Octagon any time soon? Time will tell.
Stephan Bonnar: Bonnar’s stock had already fallen after his second loss to Forrest Griffin in August, but the revelation after the fight that he tested positive for steroids may have sealed his UFC fate, at least for a while. Bonnar has proven to be a charismatic and relentless fighter who always looks to put on a show for the fans, and that may help him to return to the Octagon at some point, but for now I wouldn’t expect to see “The American Psycho” any time soon (although it wouldn’t be a complete shock if PRIDE brings him in to essentially job for some of their bigger fighters).
WHO CAN HELP
Alistair Overeem: “The Demolition Man” has been busy this year, fighting six times and going 3-3. He’s run into a string of tough luck lately after his successful heavyweight debut against Sergei Kharitonov in February. I think the Dutchman could find new life in the UFC light heavyweight division. His presence would be mutually beneficial for him and the UFC.
Melvin Manhoef: If you want a guy who could make an immediate impact, check out Manhoef. He’s won eight straight in the last two years, and seven of those wins have come by knockout (including a 17 second dismantling of Ian Freeman and a second round KO of the tough Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos). He’s made his name in the British Cage Rage promotion, and he was seen most recently in K-1 knocking out Crosley Gracie in the first round.
Quinton Jackson: He was last seen fighting for the WFA, defeating Matt Lindland in an exciting fight. Bringing “Rampage” into the UFC and building up a rematch between him and Liddell would be a huge draw if done right.
Wanderlei Silva: Okay, I know it’s probably not happening, despite what Frank Trigg said on the PRIDE broadcast on Sunday. But a guy can hope against hope, can’t he?
So what do you think? Did I miss anyone? Email me with your thoughts, and I’ll post any good points in another column. This is something I plan on doing monthly after title fights, so let me know what you think.